Eyes on the Board of Education: December 10, 2020

by Karel Kilimnik 

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Nelson Mandela

This December edition of Eyes brings the deja vu that comes with seeing the same business interests circle back. Of this month’s twenty-seven Action Items, almost half are for contract extensions or  amendments–and for whose benefit?   We see the expansion of grants from non-profits  and the perennial flow of money to Relay GSE  “to  build a quality teacher pipeline” (Item 14). Former Board member Chris McGinley referred to the organization as “the Relay Fake Graduate School of Education.” 

The Hite administration now wants to add a fourth partner to their Teaching Fellows cohort of Temple and Drexel (neither of whom will  be paying PILOTS nor making a substantial donation as Penn just did) and Relay.   

At a time when life-and-death decisions are being made about whether to send students and staff back into buildings, transparency becomes even more important. But it is still  hard to find crucial information, one example being the inadequate Item descriptions.  Last week, Chief Financial Uri Monson described the District’s financial picture as “fluid”. What happened to the Board’s promise of only considering “essential” business? Why is basic charter reform still not on the table–but layoffs and school closings are?  

Education blogger Thomas Ultican reports that the unaccredited Broad Superintendents Academy actually  “trains public education destroyers.”  Eli Broad, he writes,  is “estimated to be worth $6 billion [and] made his fortune by building two fortune-500 companies, KB Homes and Sun America. He is a product of public education but is determined to privatize the system.” Broad is one of the many wealthy individuals with no education experience or background positioning himself as a self-appointed education expert and influencer. 

Broad connections here include 2005 Broad Academy graduate Superintendent William Hite.  Four of the fourteen District “Chiefs” (using the terminology from Jeb Bush’s corporate lobbying group Chiefs for Change)  are Broad graduates or fellows. District Management Group (DMG) Senior Adviser Team includes several Broad grads (Item 8). 

The Board perpetuates, through its spending priorities,  the corporate model of education as a business, with services to be outsourced rather than performed by experienced and dedicated  District staff. In August 2019 (Items 16 & 17) the Board  approved two grants from the Broad Center supporting Broad residents in District leadership positions. Broadies continue to flourish within our District, thus diminishing the voices of educators, parents and community members. 

The Board and the Hite administration often proclaim their commitment to equity, but again their spending tells a different story. This month it is the $250,000 contract for playground upgrade at Lowell Elementary (Item 22).   How was this school chosen for a $250,000 payment when other schools do not even have a playground?  Equity in the distribution of scarce resources needs to be examined, with criteria for selection made public. 

 What If….

…Board members not only asked questions at public meetings but posted the answers on the District website? This action would represent one step toward  true transparency and accountability.  At meetings District staff often respond to questions from Board members with “we will get back to you”. Those answers should be provided and posted as quickly as possible.

January Board of Education Action Meeting:  Thursday January 28 at 5 PM.  Check the Board website for updated information on how to sign up to testify.

Action Items of Note

Find the full List of Action Items here]

Corporate Disruptors Make Further Inroads into District

Action Item 8: Contract Extension with District Management Group for Breakthrough Teams Coaching (No Cost)

Description:This contract was originally authorized by the Board of Education on February 27, 2020 via Action Item No. 17.  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this work was put on hold and the contract term was extended to December 31, 2020 for no additional cost via Action Item No. 10 on June 25, 2020.  Since then, pandemic-related efforts have continued to take priority and this work is now anticipated to start in early 2021. Therefore, both parties have agreed to extend the contract term through June 30, 2021 at no additional cost to the District.  For reference, the description of the work from the original action item from February 27, 2020 is included in the following paragraph:

“The District Management Group will work with members of the Operations team across multiple functions in order to help them improve the effectiveness of their services. The primary deliverable is professional development and coaching on District Management Group’s Breakthrough Team approach which is a rapid cycle of innovation, prototyping, and implementation that creates momentum and urgency to produce positive results. District Management Group will guide Operations team members through execution of ten concurrent Breakthrough projects across several Operations functions. Potential Breakthrough projects include initiatives to improve timeliness of work order completion, school cleanliness ratings, and on-time rates of bus routes. The Breakthrough Team approach will also prepare members of the Operations team to be agile and responsive to process improvements and priorities identified in the Operations Department Strategic Plan.”

APPS Analysis:  Last year the Board approved a $325,000 contract with DMG  to  “work with the District’s central office and other stakeholders to deliver on the District’s commitment to support the long term success of the Operations department.” We asked then why the District’s management team needed to hire outside district management consultants, who the other stakeholders were, and who funds and operates DMG.  DMG CEO John J-H Kim worked at McKinsey & Company before becoming President of Kaplan Learning Services, where he developed and marketed education services for the K-12, higher education and corporate markets.  Kim helped to establish Beacon Education Management, which soon merged with Chancellor Academies to form Chancellor Beacon Academies in 2001.  Chancellor Beacon Academies was bought by the scandal-ridden national charter school management company Imagine Schools. (Head spinning yet?) Kim then goes on to work at online marketing company Rakuten before landing at the District Management Group. The only education experience Kim has is in marketing education products. Kim has been a Senior Lecturer in Business Administration at Harvard Business School since 2011, and he is a Senior Advisor for Gnowbe (“a mobile 1st, web-enabled, micro-learning solution designed specifically for behaviour change that delivers business impact. We aspire to revolutionise corporate education through transformational learning – available anytime, anywhere.”).  DMG is known for its “Academic Return on Investment [A-ROI] approach to evaluating programs and initiatives”. Of the seven staff members listed on DMG’s website, one worked at Teach for America (TFA)  for 13 years; another was a founding board member of FitMoney, a non-profit organization that provides free, Common Core-aligned financial literacy curriculum for K-12 as well as serving as board chair of the Edward Brooke Charter School;  another is a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s Urban Superintendents Academy. The two individuals listed as Senior Advisors are described as “Distinguished leaders sharing deep experience and powerful insights.” Who are these Senior Advisors and what do they bring to the table?  Both Senior Advisors, Hosanna Mahaley Jones (2009) and Dr Abelardo Saaverda (2002) are Broad Fellows.

Board Must Invest in Teacher Retention

Action Item 14: Authorization to Execute Contracts for Teacher Residency Program with Drexel University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Temple University, and Urban Teachers ($1,275,000)

Description:The District contracts seeks to contract with four (4) residency partners to recruit, onboard and train a cohort of Teacher Residents who will ultimately become content certified teachers in the District. Teacher Residents are asked to commit to teaching for three years past their residency in hard-to-fill content areas. Residency program partners commit to recruiting a diverse teaching pool and to provide courses required for certification as well as on-site teacher training through a mentor teacher or university-based advisor.

 The District’s Teacher Residency program has provided a pipeline for approximately 191 certified teacher hires to date, starting with approximately 20 Teacher Residents, working with one partner, Relay Graduate School of Education (GSE), in SY2018, and expanding to four university partners in SY2019 and SY2020.  As part of the effort to continue to build a quality teacher pipeline, the District seeks to continue operating the Teacher Residency Program through SY 2023, with the option to extend contracts yearly through SY 2026, pending a review of performance and funding. 

The Office of Talent seeks to extend our partnership and contract with Drexel University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Temple University, and seeks conditional approval  to contract with Urban Teachers (pending the entity’s approval as a local teacher certification program by the Pennsylvania Department of Education). Drexel University and Temple University both provide a strong pipeline of middle- and secondary-grades science, mathematics and Spanish language residents. Both have extensive history with teacher preparation within the District. Relay GSE provides a strong pipeline for recruiting and certifying diverse Teacher Residents in a range of content areas (ELA, Science, Math). Relay GSE also provides an option that minimizes the costs of a certification program for the residents themselves. 

To date, 100 former Teacher Residents are teachers of record across 55 schools in the District. Residents were either retained in their host schools or site selected for science, mathematics and English language arts positions in schools across the city.  The current cohort of 63 residents are training in middle and secondary classrooms across 34 schools. They are prepared to enter classrooms across the District beginning in Fall 2021.

The recruitment of racially diverse teacher residents remains a priority, ensuring that we are growing the workforce of teachers who reflect the students served in District schools. Over the course of our partnership, 48% of Relay residents have identified as people of color (52% have identified as people of color in the two most recent cohorts), 43% of Drexel residents identify as people of color, and 32% of Temple residents overall identify as people of color. Our current partners also recruit teacher residents who range in age, career background and experience in District schools. 

Residents continue to demonstrate content proficiency by passing the appropriate Praxis content exam – a critical step on the path to certification. To date, 88% of teacher residents maintain an Intern or Instructional I certification in a high-need content area. Additionally, the District closely monitors resident transition to teacher positions and retention overall. To date, 92% of teacher residents transition into a teacher position. Overall, for the period 2018-2020, resident retention for Drexel, Relay and Temple was 88%. By partner, the rates break out to 80%, 92% and 93% for Drexel, Relay and Temple.  Urban Teachers (pending local approval of their certification program) would be a new partner for the District’s Teacher Residency Program. They currently operate in three cities nationally (Baltimore, D.C., and Dallas) and have a strong track record for recruiting, retaining and supporting high-quality and diverse teacher residents. We believe that their addition to the list of partners provides a path for recruiting qualified candidates both locally and nationally to train to teach in the District. 

To date, 100 former Teacher Residents are teachers of record across 55 schools in the District teaching science, mathematics, and English language arts positions in schools across the city. The current cohort of 63 residents are training in middle and secondary classrooms across 34 schools. 

APPS Analysis:  LIke swallows to Capistrano, the teacher recruitment contracts return each year to 440. The level of disrespect shown to teachers certainly contributes to their turnover. The PFT contract expired last August.  Rather than follow the City’s lead in granting a one-year contract extension to the City unions, including police and firefighters,  the District held up negotiations in a contemptible move to tie raises to the union’s agreeing to a return to in-person teaching. 

Both the Board and Superintendent Hite praise teachers for their work, but their actions tell another story. Diversifying the teaching force is absolutely essential. Working directly with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) is a better place to start than contracting with non-profits and unaccredited programs such as Relay and Urban Teacher. 

The District has already contracted with three partners, two of them accredited universities.   Why is there a need for another partner–especially since Urban Teachers is not certified in Pennsylvania?   Urban Teachers received a start-up grant in 2009 from The New Venture Fund, which blogger Thomas Ultican has called “ the Swiss army knife of public school privatization” as it  promotes education technology development and bankrolls charter school creation.” 

Urban Teacher has set up shop in Dallas, Washington DC,  and Baltimore. Johns Hopkins School of Education acts as their accredited partner  in DC and Baltimore Their funders include the Walton Family Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The billionaire funded privatization movement has recruited another organization. 

Equitable Playground Resources 

Action Item 22: License/Purchase of Assets with The Trust for Public Land at James R. Lowell Elementary School ($250,000)

Description:  The existing playground equipment and play surface at the James R. Lowell Elementary School are in need of replacement. The District intends to enter into a License Agreement with The Trust for Public Land so that they can make the playground improvements.  The Trust for Public Land will work with PlayCore Wisconsin, Inc. to perform this work.  Once the playground improvements have been completed, the School District will purchase the playground improvements from The Trust for Public Land  under the terms of a Purchase of Assets Agreement.  The District expects that through the implementation of this project, students will have increased opportunities for high quality play and learning environments within the schoolyard. This work is in support of the Operations Division goal to provide safe, healthy and welcoming learning environments for all students. 

APPS Analysis: Many of our schools need playground repairs. Some have no playground at all. But a few, supported by parent and community fundraising, have splendid outdoor play areas. Schools in more affluent areas can organize and provide needed funds for playground projects. Many schools do not have parent organizations, whether Home and School, PTA or district-supported School Advisory Committees (SAC). The Superintendent has created an Equity Coalition that should address resources such as playgrounds and how to ensure that every school has what it needs. One recommendation:  a list posted on the Office of Capital Programs website that gives the status of every school playground–or lack thereof.  As Board member Fix Lopez asked during last week’s Finance & Facilities Committee meeting,  “Why are we spending $250,000 on an upgrade when other schools have nothing?”